How to help people better use the net - go to them, let them copy, open up
Tanya Byron reckons we're guilty of Ephebiphobia, the fear of young people, as we incarcerate our young people in their bedroom prisons and replace the dangers of the street corner with risk-taking on unbridled access to the net. Worse still, the challenges raised by the continued lack of interest we take in our children's use of the net are coming back fast to create broader challenges for society.
The reaction to this might be 'teach the kids and teach the parents'. But we're now in an era where it's not so much about signposting where to go on the web, but teaching society how to navigate the net without even a map.
For years now, parents (and by default most educators and decision-makers) underestimate what young people do online. While most adults think youngsters spend somewhere in the region of 18.8 hours per month online, the reality is that UK kids are averaging 43.5 hours a month. Only four of those hours are spent using the net in schools, the rest is mostly unaccounted for on mobile phones and at home in those bedroom prisons. What's going on in those remaining 24.7 hours each month is unknown. The people with the media literacy challenge are not just young people - it's adults, too, who lack the basic alphabet of understanding that's needed to bottom out responsible, creative, enjoyable and engaging use of the web by us all.
Gen-Y doesn't exist
We know from research, anecdote and a cursory glance across Bebo or Facebook profiles (I've probably viewed close to 15,000 in my previous work with Learning and Teaching Scotland) that we are wrong to annoint youngsters with some sort of technological superiority through lables such as the "Google Generation", "Gen Y" or, my pet armageddon, "Digital Natives".
Firstly, we know that while young people are taught how to swim in the safe goldfish bowl of school and private intranets, often by educators who themselves have a filmsy idea of how to operate in that arena, they are completely incapable of operating safely and responsibly in the oceans of the web. If young people are to learn how to upload and download information responsibly then they must be allowed to play with their technologies with the lifeguard of the educator to drag them back to safety when they start to falter. Filtering these technologies serves only to compound the ability of the educator to work with the youngster on media literacy, and harms us all in a wider sense.
Secondly, we romanticise the technological creativity of our youngsters online. While large numbers now upload material online (close to 78% of teens according to most recent research) most of this material is photographic - i.e. mobile snaps from nights out. Creating and publishing original narrative, original code or Facebook apps or even mashed up video or code is not currently a regular pass-time of you average British kid, though we are beginning to see valiant efforts to make this process of creation-publication the norm in our schooling.
However, most don't come close to the kind of creativity illustrated by a young Mark Zuckerberg, pictured, who avoided his near flunk at Harvard art class with some online creativity, a story recounted by Jeff in WWGD. With a few days to go until his final exam, for which he hadn't done any work (well, he was creating his $15b company), he created a site with copies of the artwork that was likely to appear in the final exam, put in some comment boxes under each one, and let his fellow students know that he had created a collaborative study guide. All they had to do was fill in the blanks. Not only did a cheeky Zuckerberg pass with flying colours, but his classmates also did better than normal thanks to their formative assessment that Zuckerberg offered them.
But here's the tough question Jarvis doesn't ask: how many youngsters actually do that, or even think of it as a possibility? Today's literacy benchmark is copy and paste. A media literacy strategy, instead of talking about how we block copying and pasting, and enforce filtering, rating, copyright and IPR restrictions, could begin the hard work of illustrating how copy, paste, open sourcing and creative commons-ing can lead to much better content and information for all.
The challenges of attracting attention to these challenges with a public that's hard to get
The biggest challenge for a 'strategy' like this is that it's incredibly hard to a) attract young audiences b) keep them and c) turn that into some form of value. Channel 4's arguably one of the best broadcasters in the world at doing this, and with 4iP and Channel 4 Education's work online, we're attempting to work out how we replicate television's success at 'reach' to this group online, on mobile and in socially connected games.
Matt Locke and I have been playing around with Dave McClure's Metrics for Pirates in our work with independent companies to push them to think about those questions: how are you going to attract people, how are you going to keep them, and how are you going to turn that into some sort of value? Matt came up with a strong reduction of this, and I made it look less pretty but more utilitarian by insisting on a timescale for each metric. Take those three questions and apply them to what we know about online community uptake (that 90% lurk, 9% will follow regularly and 1% might contribute something) and we end up with a roll-your-own site metrics table:
To help see it in action I made one up for YouTube, had they approached 4iP a few years back for funding. It shows how a site that "gets people to upload videos" has added a lot of small ingredients to the recipe to take people on that more-complex-than-it-looks journey to uploading a vid. It still takes great ideas and a strong awareness of the potential of different technologies and techniques (RSS, Ajax, email, marketing, business development, cloud computing) to be able to fill it in and act on it, and this is where we might just see some problems in our institutions and schools. The knowledge and understanding just isn't there in enough quantities to high enough a level.
Our well-meaning institutions are another obstacle in the process
One could even go as far as saying that it would be counter-intuitive, professionally suicidal even, for institutions to seize this opportunity to engage with young people - any people - in this kind of open, copiable, distributable, redistributable, changeable, alterable way. Jeff Jarvis is right:
"Industries and institutions, in their most messianic moments, tend to view the internet in their own image: Retailers thin of the internet as a store... Marketers see it as their means to deliver a brand message. Media companies see it as a medium, assuming that online is about content and distribution...
"The internet explodes [this notion that industries and institutions have some point of control over people]. It abhors centralization. It loves sea level and tears down barriers to entry. It despises secrecy and rewards openness. It favors collaboration over ownership. The once-powerful approach the internet with dread when they realize they cannot control it."
As a starting point, therefore, media literacy begins with much more communication between young people and adults when we're taking decisions on how we proceed. There are three main areas that need tackled first:
Who defines 'safe' in the large grey area where user's own discrepency is accepted as the main tool of judgement? Who decides what 'Bad Content' might be (a phrase used in the context of a presentation at the EU Media Literacy conference)? Who decides if content is culturally acceptable or not within a geographical area, and why should I as a Brit have to have an internet that is culturally adapted to the country in which I find myself, while I and my judgements remain coloured by being British? Filtering is the poor cousin of film classification, something invented as a solution for atoms crossing borders, not digits.
While filtering illegal content is a no-brainer, we need to assume the rest is whitelisted and have conversations about those where we're less sure. Blocking the unpopular but legitimately published free speech of bloggers, for example, is plainly wrong and not an option any more.
Neither is it an option to create 'safe havens' where we expect people to come along and get 'safe' stuff. Glow, a national intranet for schools, thus far comes over as this, although the desire for it to 'leak' out onto the web is becoming clearer. But I feel it needs to take a leaf out of the book of, say,
Battlefront, an education project designed to encourage more young people to campaign on important issues. It consists of broadcast and social media 'authored' elements on the web, rooted in getting people to think about campaigning, but gets huge amounts of traffic from being distributed around the web, in as many parts of it as possible. Traditional education would have you "Come to school", broadcaster's to "their channel" - it's got to be the opposite, modeling good online behaviour by providing different contexts for the same material, different discussions, setting off new trails amongst users.
2. Parents need to understand better what's going on
I'd disagree with some speakers' assertion that "most learning goes on in schools", at least in relation to learning about internet use. On average only 60 minutes per week per pupil is spent on the net in school, compared to 1340 minutes per week at home.
Yet, only a third of parents in UK befriend their offspring (and what about the 'real' profiles where youngsters go and live their 'real' lives away from the old folks?). While 80% of parents feel sure they know what their offspring are doing online, only 30% of the offspring think so. We see a gross lack of communication between students and teachers, even when they are fighting the same cause. British parents in particular are poor at understanding what they're children do online - this means parents and educators need to speak more with the youngsters in their lives.
We also need to make sure that we don't demonise anonymity on the web. For public service media, the type that makes people's lives better and draws them from one-way web to the read-write web, anonymity is often the prerequisite for stimulating and sincere discussions.
Take a look, for example, at Embarrassing Teenage Bodies where anonymity offers the chance to discuss those 'embarrassing' but pervasive issues of growing up. Or Sexperience, where people of all ages, shapes, sizes and cultures are able to anonymously tackle the myriad of issues around seual health, wellbeing and enjoyment.
On the flip-side, anonymity doesn't work for Landshare, where we want people to trade their unused land with people who can cultivate it - we need to know who people are and if they're bona fide for the safety of those involved: anonymity needs handled with due diligence.
3. Talking helps you know, but using helps you understand
We all need to get more involved in not just the theory of how these things work but in the practice too - being in and creating media opportunities in the places where we seek participation from the public or our students.
One of the biggest media literacy and digital divide challenges, now that most of the UK is online or can get online, is making enough interesting stuff for non-net-users to want to get online. That means content that empowers them more than not using it, maybe in the form of some of MySociety's projects (TheyWorkForYou or the travel maps)
To take that point of empowerment further, and to conclude, there has to be a realisation that while artists and creators of content used to have value in owning their IPR in a world of atoms, in a world of digits this ownership if IPR comes only with costs. In a digital world if you own the only version of something then, for a while, your IPR has value but, eventually, will be commodotised as me-toos appear - not direct copies, but similar and maybe even better.
If you let people copy and distribute your stuff then you're able, eventually, to reduce your overhead on marketing and distribution - your fans and copiers are doing this for you. Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is twofold:
1. Get over the idea that your creation is the last stop of the creative bus:
People will change your message, distort it, make it worse, make it better, create something you hadn't intended - your original will always be your original, their altered version always their altered version. The important thing here is that it's as easy as clicking a link or running a Google search to find the original source and to let the user/participant make their own mind up as to which message they are more engaged with.
2. Find alternative means of being recompensed for your initial efforts
Have your original stuff carry ads or sponsorship, give away poor versions for free but top quality versions for money as eBook fans and TV companies on YouTube and social networks already do, find the George Lucas approach to making your stuff, and make your money on something else.
Pic 1: Smoking and texting
Pic 2: Zuckerberg